The Linguist of the Future: Skills that Cannot Be Replaced by Automation
In recent conversations, many enterprises and language service providers have expressed concern about the long-term careers and livelihoods of linguists and of LSP intermediaries. A large high-tech enterprise relayed to us that machine translation (MT) is becoming the dominant source of its global content. Language service providers regularly mention their prices being driven ever lower by fierce competition. Long-time language industry workers worry about the Uberization of a profession that often requires a master’s degree yet pays pennies per word. Meanwhile, many procurement-driven purchasers treat translation as a commodity like nuts and bolts.
The linguists that earn their living translating, interpreting, and reviewing words report average earnings of US$29,000 per year with nearly one-half with an income of less than US$20,000 from language services – hardly reflective of the many years of study needed to become a proficient translator. Many work more than one job, with language services being an extra source of income. Combine this data with rapidly-increasing automation – MT, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, and the picture for future careers in language services can look grim. Can history teach the language industry how to deal with the equivalent of a language industrial revolution?
Not so long ago – and in some places even today – few people knew how to read and write. Someone who did could work in a prestigious job as a scribe – in Ancient Egypt they were among the most important professionals. Today, there are very few scribes – most of us are lucky enough to have learned to read and write, have keyboard skills, and are articulate in the written word. Technology – from the printing press, typewriter, word processor, and eventually personal computer and smartphone – and education have eliminated the need to pay someone to write for you. There is even speech-to-text software that hears the spoken word and converts it to written content. And yet, there are many careers where the ability to write – combined with other skills – is essential. Journalists, novelists, movie script writers, teachers, even project managers in high-tech: all careers where the ability to convey thoughts in writing are mandatory. These writers are no longer scribes for hire; rather, the career has morphed into many options, combined with other skills and with technology that the Pharaohs never dreamed of.
Another example: framework knitting, a career for many men and women from the 16th century – when early professionals were wealthy – through to the 19th century, when the job earned a bare and frugal income and “as poor as a stockinger” described the situation of many families. These were the early days of automation and of working from home: the knitters had their frames set up in their small houses and – like today’s translators – were paid by the “piece”. In 1812, an estimated 25,000 frames were in use in the UK alone. A study of censuses throughout the 19th century shows many families relying on income from knitting fabric, stockings, and lace – even while the Industrial Revolution was rapidly moving production from the cottage to the factory.
How many framework knitters do you know today? None, right? But you still wear knitted socks. When technology and mechanization took over production, where did all the skills go? They changed, evolved; people either moved to work in the mills, or found other ways to support their families.
What other career evolutions can we add to the list? Think of those that today are considered artisanal – such as weaving and baking – where the majority of product is mass-produced and automated – or which have moved from heavy labor to human aided by machine, such as housing construction or the logistics of producing and delivering goods.
But what does any of this mean for the language industry today?
- Don’t panic. The language industrial revolution has only just begun: there’s time to prepare for change. Written translation is – so far – more automated than the spoken word, though it is happening there, too. Neither is perfect – yet.
- Anticipate change. Explore areas where language skills are essential beyond the translation task – in working with, developing, and improving MT; in the more creative aspects of global marketing; and – combined with other skills – within many aspects of international business. Today’s wise students of languages seek training courses and degrees where technology and business skills are an integral part of their education, to prepare for a future where automation is unavoidable.
- Expect the revolution to speed up. As innovation and automation is driven by need – whether budget cuts at the enterprise, an exponential increase in content and data, and/or a recognition that language automation can meet some, if not all, needs – the industrial solution will increasingly become the norm.
- Find a niche. If you are a linguist and don’t want to be part of the revolution, find what makes you – or your company’s – offering stand out. Consider adding those skills that automation cannot replicate – like transcribing audio spoken with a heavy accent, or in writing content for a specific market to convey a global message. Like the artisanal baker, produce and market an exquisite cake that no supermarket can compete with.
- Choose to pay fairly. When buying language services, be aware of the human being at the end of the supply chain – they are still your scribe. If you are expecting a skilled, trained, and professional linguist to ensure your content is your global voice, be ready to pay a working wage for the privilege.
A time will come when the translator or interpreter is considered as ancient a trade as the Pharaohs’ scribe or the stocking-maker in her cottage. No doubt the world will still communicate in many languages: translation and interpreting will be part and parcel of many more careers than that of a linguist paid by the word.
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